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Our whole house is my workspace: Harpreet Padam

Designer Harpreet Padam on being a hoarder of visually inspiring objects and why a railway guard cabin on a train might be the best place to work from

Harpreet Padam
Harpreet Padam

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Most projects that designer Harpreet Padam juggles on an almost-everyday basis tend to embody a quiet sense of efficiency, layered through with beauty. Which, in a way, is essentially what all good design is about. The co-founder of Delhi-based design studio Unlike Design Co., which he started in 2006 with graphic and communications designer Lavanya Asthana, Padam is a lifestyle and fashion accessory designer who works with various brands as well as with Indian craftspeople and artisans.

“Over the years, we have worked with industry in apparel, accessories, hospitality, retail, publishing and even NGOs and health organisations. Currently, we’re designing packaging for a new leather accessories brand. We’re also designing textile prints and home accessories with craftspeople in Rajasthan, which is a project by Dastkar,” says Padam.

Just before the pandemic hit, Padam was also working actively with papier-mâché artisans in Kashmir as well as the wood cutlery craftspeople in Udayagiri in Andhra Pradesh. While covid-19 affected most industries, the handloom and handicraft traditions of the country, already a fragile cottage industry, took a bad hit.

“The situation remains bleak for our craftspeople. The pandemic has simply unveiled the fragility of their assumed financial stability, or confidence rather,” says Padam. He notices that while some artisans are leaving their craft for more ‘stable’ professions, some others, especially those he is familiar with in Kashmir had used the lockdowns to move beyond middlemen, “progress to online sales and virtual payment methods”, and “reach consumers directly in the rest of India,” he says. Padam adds: “It’s surprising how WhatsApp, Telegram and Instagram are increasingly being understood as lifelines for new ways of operating a crafts business.”

The designer's desk at home
The designer's desk at home (Courtesy Harpreet Padam )

Lately, along with Asthana who is also his wife, Padam is designing a series of book covers for the publishing house Penguin. “(We’re doing) a new book covers for famous old classics–which includes George Orwell’s 1984. That’s a serious privilege,” he says. In this interview, he talks to Lounge about how he is fortunate to share a home with a fellow-hoarder of things that appeal to various design impulses, and how he finds “comfort and efficiency in merging working and living, both separated neither by time nor by space.” Edited excerpts.

Before we begin, can you talk a little about the separate Instagram account you run, called ‘And This Please’, where you find and recommend oft-overlooked well-designed products? What is the importance of, pleasure in finding, having, recommending, and using such things?

And This Please is like a consumerist manifestation of my collecting habit. In 1999, as a young graduate with an income, I began buying my music (as cassettes) from a webstore called Fabmart. It was like the stone-age of ecommerce in India. In the years to follow, as e-commerce expanded, so did my Internet Explorer Favourites folder—with things, objects, books which I liked but could not or did not buy, yet appreciated. Pinterest helped organise the list better but it has limited reach. In 2020, I eventually started ‘And This Please’ on Instagram, where I now list a find every few days. There are simply too many objects and things around us. Often, some of the good, the brilliant, the beautiful, the essential, the well-performing things get lost amidst the visual noise. Or simply due to a lack of knowledge about their existence—which is what tends to happen online. If not that, then some Indian brands, for example, have great products but cannot communicate them effectively— like Yera glasses. And then there are iconic objects, embedded in our nostalgia of having grown up in a certain India which is fast fading away— like the Duckback inflatable pillow, or the Bata Tennis shoe, or even HMT watches. I also post other things I find interesting or intelligent or useful. My idea is to bring all these together and take pleasure in sharing information about their availability. It’s an entirely personal point of view but that’s what And This Please is about. The name of course, hints at a subtle tinge of greed that every consumer carries within.

Describe your current workspace to us.

My current workspace is in my home at Noida near Delhi. There is no one fixed place where I spend the most time working though. There is a large shared work table in our living room where I spend most of the working day. I use a smaller study for video calls and meetings. And then there is a desk in my bedroom where I sit in the evenings or late at night. We also have a room where we keep work and material samples, supplies and tools. That’s the busiest space, yet also the most inspiring. For audio calls and quiet thinking, I am usually in our balcony. I like that especially because it’s on an east-facing 16th floor overlooking the Noida expressway and the Yamuna fading out into fields of green. In that sense, our whole house is my workspace. To add to all of this, I am often in Chandigarh at my parents’ house, which is a very calming space — and I usually work on a desk that overlooks the garden.

Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

Before the Covid waves, I used to work from our office space in Delhi as well as from home. Now it is almost entirely from home. I say almost because a lot of my work with Indian craft communities involves traveling and working from their own workspaces which are in small towns, old districts of big cities or villages. Perhaps the only constant workspace over the years has been the various homes that I have lived in. I find a lot of comfort and efficiency in merging working and living, both separated neither by time nor by space. My workspace has definitely evolved over the years as we have continued to collect things, books, prints, artworks, textiles and craft objects. It’s become visually busier and perhaps closer to the way we like it—being surrounded by things we design or would like to design. I’m a hoarder of things that appeal to various design impulses—colour, form, print, texture, culture. I’m also very fortunate that in this aspect—Lavanya, my wife, who is a partner at the studio and a communication designer, is very similar. Some years ago we saw this fantastic documentary called Herb and Dorothy (directed by Megumi Sasaki) about a New York couple who collected art all their lives. I loved their apartment. Their was art everywhere. Loft living is another inspiration. I always admire the spaces of creative people who live and work in lofts. I think that’s where this is eventually headed, in my own little way.

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

When I’m working on a particular project, everything related to it tends to stay around my work table — for weeks at times. There are a lot of KonMari conscience moments, but I think the tendency on a daily basis is to create a clearing large enough to work in, for the immediate moment. And for many cups of tea. Vividh Bharti radio plays very often. I am also addicted to this digital radio channel called Groove Salad by Soma FM, which goes very well with work.

The note from Ettore Sottsass on the top left in pink paper, from Oppi Untracht on the wall on white, and Marc Held in cream
The note from Ettore Sottsass on the top left in pink paper, from Oppi Untracht on the wall on white, and Marc Held in cream (Courtesy Harpreet Padam)

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years. Why?

The one thing I have always had besides my workplace, or at least since 2005, is a handwritten note by the late Italian design master Ettore Sottsass. I had asked him, by email, for a little message for my studio wall back then and he posted me a signed note that says, “Love, Ettore Sottsass”. I really admire his work and his writings on design. They have made me a better designer I feel, or at least strengthened my intention of being one.

I later went on to collect more ‘design blessings’ if one can call it that. So there is also a note by Marc Held, a French designer and architect who I really admire. And another by Oppi Untracht, whose seminal book was a guiding light while studying jewellery design at NIFT.

Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

To think of it, all the eureka moments have happened outdoors I feel—never at home or around the workplace. While driving, in the metro, meeting other people, on a walk, at tea-stalls or while teaching design or interacting with students. There is an energy in interaction which sitting and focused working does not have. In recent times though, I do remember making a lot of paper models for my Kashmir craft project in this space. Late nights, a lot of paper cutting, sticking, taping…all with a looming deadline of catching a flight to Srinagar. We have also worked very hard on the design of an exhibition stand in Hong Kong here.

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

I am always in search of new places or new corners to work in. The monotony of the familiar makes my brain jam up. The one place I really dream of working from is that little guard cabin balcony at the very end of Indian trainsalways on the move! A very large desk overlooking a harbour with passing ships and frequent foghorns would do as well.

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces

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